MANILA,  August
18, 2004 (STAR) By Manny Baldemor - In the First Book of Kings, verse 19, we read how Elijah the Prophet, in fear of his life, fled into the desert towards Horeb, the mountain of God, where he took shelter in a cave. There, the Lord told him to wait within the mountain until time passes by. A fierce and rending wind came, crushing the rocks, but the Lord was not in the wind. Next came an earthquake, but the Lord was not there either. Then, a fierce conflagration appeared, but the Lord was neither in the fire as well. Finally, there was silence… save a tiny whispering sound. Then, Elijah stood up and knew that was where the Lord’s Voice lay.

Most of us are seekers of peace, not in its strict definition as a mere absence of external conflict but inner peace. Today, few people, if any, can claim to possess this peace. Even in the comfort of one’s home, one is subject to a perpetual bombardment from media. One turns on the television, he sees an ad of beautiful people. If he/she is not one of these beautiful people, perhaps feelings of insecurity start to gnaw at the back of his mind and rob him/her of their peace. And if one is so lucky as to be one of the beautiful people, then that one will be tempted to compare any shortcomings he has with others. And even if one finds no flaw, no blemish and finds themselves seemingly as gods, they have only a few decades to enjoy them before their joints start to ache, wrinkles start to appear and bellies swell, and once again, peace will be lost. Plus there is that concern about a new cell phone model coming out, a more powerful PC, new fashions, the bills to pay for the household and the maddening demands family members impose on each other prevalent in the Filipino family’s tight-knit structure.

Peace is a rare commodity in one’s home. It only comes from an intense period of self-realization and meditation. To accomplish that, one needs to find that special place away from distractions, and one not only finds peace but also the strength to continue one’s daily struggles. Jesus set the example by spending 40 days in the wilderness before his struggle against the Devil. St. Paul, after his departure from Jerusalem, came to Cappadocia, Turkey to meditate before establishing one of the earliest Christian communities. The Greek Orthodox monks live in a high rock-forest in Meteora in the northern part of Greece, free from the noise of worldly distractions, their souls perpetually in deep conversation with, as Elijah was, the silent voice of God.

Being an artist, I usually attain peace when I am ready to paint. My personal method was to look at my subject through visionary images, an opening of the mind based on my own experiences. In the Philippines, I had little problems in my studio at home. Abroad, this was not always easy. I tend to run around, traveling to different places trying to accomplish as much as possible and squeezing as many things into a short period of time. My most important concern was managing my time as much as my itinerary allowed. More time was needed for logistical obstacles, and there was little left for returning to pasty locations for further meditation. Another concern was my desire to open myself to the timelessness of the place. Whenever I visit someplace new, I try to imagine myself being there in an earlier period and feel how the original inhabitants did their daily tasks and the unique problems they faced, most probably things we take for granted today in our globally connected society.

Thus, a very fortunate occurrence arrived in the shape of an application form from the Portuguese Embassy in Manila last December. It was about an artist-in-residence program under the Fundacao Oriente of Portugal. The Fundacao Oriente offers residencies to writers and artists of different fields from Asian countries with the aim of stimulating cultural and artistic exchanges to maintain the historic and artistic relations between Portugal and the Orient. Up to three artist-residencies are awarded yearly for 30 days, usually from March 1 to April 30, once they pass the rigorous selection process that is. Priority in the selection process is assessed by an applicant’s proven artistic merit evidenced by work produced, along with considerations of importance, interest and appropriateness from his/her home country. The foundation shoulders all traveling expenses to and from Portugal, starting from the applicants’ permanent residence plus accommodation and food expenses at the Arrabida Monastery. The artist retains full artistic rights on subject and medium of any artwork produced during his/her stay. The only requirement is to credit the Fundacao Oriente’s program and the use of the Arrabida Monastery at the artist’s unveiling.

The monastery, better known as the Convento de Arrabida, was founded in 1542 by a Franciscan brother, Martinho de Santa Maria. He had been offered by the Arrabida hills by D. Joao de Lencastre, first Duke of Aveiro (1501-1571), to allow him to continue his life as a hermit. The monastery was built and named after the hills, which was originally based on an even earlier group of hermits dedicated to Our Lady of Arrabida, the latter word meaning "meditation" in Portuguese. According to records, the Franciscan monks of the Convento de Arrabida were renowned not only for the austerity of their lives and habits, but also for their patriotism and humanitarian behavior. The monks left the Monastery in 1834 when religious orders were abolished in Portugal. After the Aveiro family, property ownership of the monastery shifted to the Palmela family, until it was purchased by the Fundacao Oriente in 1990. The foundation has completely restored some buildings to be used for cultural purposes.

I was accepted warmly into the program. I was transported expense-free from my house all the way to the airport as stipulated. After a much-harried plane ride, I was transferred to a van, also provided by the Fundacao Oriente. Exhausted, I fell asleep and woke on a very cold night at the gates of the monastery.

The monastery itself was situated at the side of a hill. Set at a 30-degree angle, the main structure was embraced lovingly by an endless expanse of greenery, scrub and flowering trees. On the peak of the hills that surrounded the monastery, one can see domed ruins resembling small chapels at several intervals, perhaps a legacy from a more devout period predating the monastery itself. I was told the chapels, though not as meticulously maintained as the main building, were also used during the last Holy Week as a place of pilgrimage. Seeing the thick brush one must traverse to reach the top, I could see it was indeed a worthy task for would-be penitents.

Inside, I was surprised to find the monastery was not as spartan as I thought it would be. My bedroom has electric lights and a decent bed. Meals were served in a cafeteria-room of sorts, but one had to be prompt for food was served only during certain times. There was even a function room equipped with a fax machine, computer with Internet access and, of course, a telephone, probably the only real contact with the outside world. However, most parts of the monastery were deserted, with the paint flaking off from religious icons scattered in several spots. At night, the monastery halls seemed like those of a haunted castle, especially considering the nearby location of the Capela Do Bom Jesus, which is the local cemetery, though no longer in use, with no one about except for the caretaker.

Sunken eyed, long-faced and with graying hair, the caretaker reminded of an elderly Paul Newman. Quirino, as I knew him, handled most of the menial duties, such as cleaning, gardening, watching over the estate and, when the need arises, serving as the sole host for visitors, including me and all the other artists invited to the program. His spare time is spent praying or feeding the animals residing in the area. He did not handle everything though. Other people came in and did the cooking, the laundry and the more intensive work. However, most of them came only during work hours and left in the late afternoon. It was only Quirino who stayed on as permanent caretaker, being one of the last original residents of the monastery. Like the ancient hermits of the Arrabida Hills, he had much in common – a love of solitude, freedom from worldly distractions and a desire for a more intimate and silent communion with God. Incidentally, he was in the cast of the ’90s movie, Kumbento, starring John Malkovich and Catherine Deneuve, with Quirino acting as himself, the caretaker of the Convento de Arrabida.

My stay there was uneventful. So uneventful perhaps that it became too unbearable for some of my colleagues, other creators of their respective arts, who felt compelled to leave before the full month. The Arrabida monks chose wisely for the silence and the solitude was too perfect. One who was too accustomed to an excess of modern amenities and a love of constant chatter would become unhappy very soon. For in this timeless place, I was forced to face quiet truths about myself in thought and the perpetual order of the universe, all by watching at the never changing natural scene from my bedroom window, the days seemingly without end. During my first days, it was easy to admit restlessness. As time went by, something infinitely more precious replaced it. I would not be so bold to presume I attained perfect interior peace like some self-proclaimed Buddha, but like Quirino, I felt it would not be so bad to choose to live out the last of my days in the monastery and mingling my last breath with the nurturing air of the Arrabida forest.

Eventually, my month ran out. I said goodbye to Quirino and all the artists who managed to hold on or had arrived later than I did. Perhaps some people felt the experience was too imprisoning, but I believe it depends on one’s point of view.

I left the monastery feeling like Moses who descended from Mt. Sinai carrying the 10 Commandments, gray-haired and full of wisdom. Of course, in my case, my hair was already gray before my visit. As for the 10 Commandments, I came out with 100 aquarelle paintings instead, the fruits of my long and peaceful stay at the Convento de Arrabida.

* * * Manny Baldemor’s paintings were featured at the Art Space of Glorietta 4, through the cooperation and support of the Embassy of Portugal, the Fundacao Oriente and Galerie Y.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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